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Smile, you're on state-run candid camera

Friday February 15, 2008

Surveillance cameras, listening devices, satellite images and smart cards. How alarming is that, asks Eamonn Butler.

Sometimes I think Britain is free only in the imaginings of politicians. That is, the ones who are bugging their colleagues, not the ones being bugged – as Sadiq Khan MP was when he visited a constituent in jail recently. It now turns out that terror suspects’ talks with their lawyers and their MPs are routinely bugged by the prison authorities. A wise precaution for protecting the public, some might say. Yet another outrageous assault on the impartiality of the legal system and the rights of the accused, others might think.

From time to time there are small victories – a judge recently grumbled about street cameras with microphones that enable police and local authority staff to eavesdrop on what it being said on the pavement underneath. But the trend is all to more and more surveillance. Yes, CCTV cameras have no doubt deterred crime in some places and they have certainly solved crime in others. But do they make me feel safe? Not on your nellie.

In The Road to Southend Pier, the journalist Ross Clark documents just how difficult it is to undertake even a short journey – from London to Southend – without your image, your phone details, or your credit-card information being recorded somewhere or other. Fine, if you can be confident that this data will be used only for legitimate purposes and will be safeguarded diligently. The trouble is that a lot of it ends up in the hands of state authorities who – as HM Revenue & Customs’ loss of 25 million addresses and bank account details shows – can be, er, a little careless, shall we say?


And it’s not as if all this surveillance is being used to protect us against hardened terrorists anyway. In recent weeks the newspapers have carried stories of local authorities hiding mini-cameras in old drink cans in order to trap people fly-tipping rubbish. And wheelie bins are now equipped with chips that enable councils to check their use – and potentially to detect folk who don’t seem to be recycling as much rubbish as they should.

Arguing that you don’t produce much rubbish to recycle won’t spare you harrassment, of course. I had a friend who never had a television until perhaps the 1990s, and he used to get regular visits from detector van crews, and various threatening letters from the TV licensing lot, expressing disbelief that he wasn’t secretly watching Eastenders without paying the BBC’s poll tax. But the TV licensing authorities are by no means the only ones to have detailed information on 28 million or so addresses. Almost anyone can get that – it’s as easy as buying a DVD or downloading a datafile.

Last weekend I took some American relatives round Ely Cathedral. The Cathedral asks for a donation from non-worshippers to go in, which seems quite reasonable, and I was asked if I would like it to quality for gift aid – to which I readily agreed. (Better that my tax should go to this fine old building rather than our hapless Chancellor of the Exchequer.) I gave my postcode and house number, and in an instant my name and those of my family flashed up on the teller’s screen. My US relatives were shocked that we should be so minutely catalogued and easily accessible. Given the incongruity of this high-tech intrusion happening in an eleventh-century stone vaulted cathedral porch, I must say I was surprised too.


This isn’t the half of it, though. On the way to Ely we passed through an ‘average speed check’ system. Our car was photographed at the beginning and the end, and our registration number logged by number-recognition software – to see if we were speeding – as were everyone else’s. So there again, the authorities knew exactly where we all were, and when. And we would not have escaped scrutiny by going on the train or by bus, because they all have surveillance cameras too. And if we had walked, we would probably have shown up on at least two dozen of the four million CCTV cameras around Britain.

Log on to Virtual Earth or Google Earth or the others and you will see the extraordinary detail that satellite imaging can achieve. When I look at the spy-in-the-sky pictures of my house, I see you can’t quite count the number of hairs on the dog’s back, but it’s close. Another nice bank of information for the authorities to use – or abuse.

Skulking round Ely’s hedgerows in wide-brimmed hats would have been no protection against surveillance for us either, because our mobile phone records would have revealed where we were going. Even when switched off, their signals are detected by phone masts and, of course, duly logged – and held, in case the police subsequently want to check our movements. Of course, they probably know already, since the police have the power to bug telephone calls on behalf of 800 different bodies including NHS trusts and, of course, all those councils who are so distressed that we might be fly-tipping rubbish.


Before too long, you’ll be on candid camera whenever you are within sight of a police officer – some are already being fitted with ‘helmet cams’ – CCTV headgear. The justification is that when police are called to an incident, there will be a video record to show whether they have acted properly and haven’t sunk the boot in to some surly youth. But again, it means that the police know what you are doing, where, and when. It gets creepier by the day.

If and when the police do pull you in – and in the last decade, several hundred new offences have been created, so there is no shortage of excuses for doing so – your DNA will be added to the four million records already held, and your fingerprints to the seven million dabs currently on file. The police don’t seem overly bothered that they hold such information on hundreds of thousands of people who have never actually been charged with any offence, much less actually convicted.

When – soon – we get passports and identify cards with all our personal and biometric details on them, we will probably find the state authorities sharing this information with lots of other people. Not deliberately, of course. I’m thinking of the hackers and mafia bosses who will find them to be a very convenient way of cloning someone’s identity. Why should the state have a monopoly on the abuse of personal information?

It’s all rather alarming. However, the recent loss of some four thousand NHS smartcards, which enable NHS doctors and administrators to gain access to patient records, holds no fears for me that my most intimate medical details will appear on the front page of the Guardian. The NHS lost my medical records years ago.

Dr Eamonn Butler is director and co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute

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